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Justifying rebellion

  • Sunday, March 14 2010 @ 11:16 PM CET
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A friend of mine recently called my attention to Chris Hedges Calling All Rebels. It is a very strange article, being a combination of existentialism with a call to action, that ultimately ties itself up into a hopeless muddle. I submit that this is not an issue of lack of clarity about the course of action, as at least some commenters suggest, but something much deeper; that is: confusion over what is the supposed point of any action.

Hedges begins his essay on a pessimistic note:

The mounting anger and hatred, coursing through the bloodstream of the body politic, make violence and counter-violence inevitable. Brace yourself. The American empire is over. And the descent is going to be horrifying.
[...]And the random acts of violence, which are already leaping up around the fringes of American society, will justify harsh measures of internal control that will snuff out the final vestiges of our democracy.
There is nothing inherently incorrect about this position. I suspect that it is indeed overly pessimistic (at least most of the time), but it is certainly a legitimate position to hold, and one can certainly build a strong case for it.

The problem with taking such a position is that it provides very little spur for action. If a given outcome is inevitable and one's actions will have no effect, then why act at all? It is one thing to act against great odds, and with no hope of success, but quite another when failure is guaranteed.

Hedges recognizes, this of course.

How do we resist? How, if this descent is inevitable, as I believe it is, do we fight back? Why should we resist at all? Why not give in to cynicism and despair? Why not carve out as comfortable a niche as possible within the embrace of the corporate state and spend our lives attempting to satiate our private needs? The power elite, including most of those who graduate from our top universities and our liberal and intellectual classes, have sold out for personal comfort. Why not us?
Further, Hedges thinks that he has an answer in the absurdist Existentialism of Camus:
The French moral philosopher Albert Camus argued that we are separated from each other. Our lives are meaningless. We cannot influence fate. We will all die and our individual being will be obliterated. And yet Camus wrote that "one of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity. It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it."

I submit that there are at least two very serious problems with this particular tack, at least one of which Hedges seems to catch a glimpse.

The first problem is that this answer seems tremendously unsatisfying, except perhaps to a small number of extreme romantics. Yes there is a certain glory in tremendous failure, but this glory arises only because of the possibility of tremendous success. If one begins with the premise that failure is guaranteed and any action is meaningless, then failure is not glorious, but only pathetic and stupid. A single person standing in front of a tank is compelling -- because there is a chance that he might stop the tank. A person throwing themselves in front of a speeding train is just stupid, certainly if the train cannot stop.

Hedges himself seems to recognize this. He quotes Mario Savio:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop...
But note here the important point that the goal of such action is "to make it [the machine] stop". It is not simply to rebel, but to rebel with a specific goal in mind, which goal is something worthwhile to be achieved. The point here is not romantic rebellion for its own sake, but a political purpose.

And this indicates what is perhaps an even deeper problem with Hedges' position: if we take it seriously, it seems to eliminate even the possibility of political action. By this I mean not action that might in some way be related to something called 'politics', but action that is actually and meaningfully political; that is: action undertaken by groups of people in order to change society. But Hedges has ruled that goal out from the beginning, since his premise is that the given outcome is "inevitable". Which means that we are left with act ion as a "confrontation between man and his obscurity", or action as self-actualization. As Hedges writes, "[t]he act of rebellion defines itself" -- and thus so defines the rebel.

Of course, a serious difficulty lurks here, and one that is catastrophic for the position Hedges would like to take. That is, once one has removed action from the realm of the political and turned it into pure rebellion without a goal, then one has no grounds to privilege any given action over any other, or to praise any while condemning any other. If we should choose to "carve out as comfortable a niche as possible within the embrace of the corporate state and spend our lives attempting to satiate our private needs", on what grounds does Hedges object? If action is only about the self, then there is nothing other than "our private needs" that could be relevant to our choices of action.

Plainly, this is not what Hedges is aiming for. So he changes tack, noting that

The rebel knows that, as Augustine wrote, hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage-anger at the way things are and the courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.
and noting that "[w]e differ with Camus only in that we have faith that rebellion is not ultimately meaningless."

But note well the shift that has just occurred. Hedges originally invoked Camus in order to address the problem of action in the absence of hope in the face of inevitable and ultimately meaningless failure. But then he claims that his position differs from that of Camus -- in precisely that area that Camus was invoked in order to address! It seems that we have a dilemma: either a) the situation truly is hopeless and meaningless (as Hedges at first suggests) -- in which case by rejecting Camus in this area, Hedges can no longer provide any justification for action in the instant case; or b) the situation is not hopeless and meaningless -- in which case the entire excursion into the thought of Camus was irrelevant. Of course, there is a problem in that the latter course involves simply ignoring the question Hedges was trying to answer, or at best providing a wholly unsatisfactory answer. If the question is: "how and why should be act in the face of inevitable defeat and the absence of hope or meaning?" then an answer of "there is hope and meaning!" is a poor one -- at least absent some justification.

But even accepting this negation of Hedges premise only creates a new problem: in justifying actions on the basis of hope and meaning, one has left the space of 'pure' rebellion that "defines itself" and moved to the space of goals: what meaning, and hope for what? If one acts in order to accomplish some goal, then it is only natural to ask "what is the goal and how does your action help to achieve it?"

And this seems to be what Hedges does not want to answer:

The power structure and its liberal apologists dismiss the rebel as impractical and see the rebel's outsider stance as counterproductive. They condemn the rebel for expressing anger at injustice.
The problem with this quote is that, unless I am very much mistaken, no one (certainly not US "liberals" -- be they "apologists" or not) "condemn[s] the rebel for expressing anger at injustice." Rather, they condemn the rebel for being "impractical", for engaging in "rebel" activity that (however well-intentioned) is useless or even counterproductive. But if the rebel is justifying his action on the basis of goals, then he cannot avoid that challenge from "liberals"; if one is doing X to achieve Y, but X serves only to make Y less likely, then one's actions are irrational.


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  • Justifying rebellion
  • Authored by: Rory on Monday, March 15 2010 @ 03:15 PM CET
Remembering that Camus emerged within the context of colonized French Algeria and then anti-nazi resistance within Vichy France, I think that the most useful analogy from US history might be discussion of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, and would here divorce Hedges from Camus for many reasons.

Hedges is arguing, I think, against complicity and despair. Although there are many things romantic about the American ideal, I see his stance as more like Frankl's logotherapy (creating meaning) than nihilism (denying it).

Given current realities, Hedges asks, what is to be done? Abandoning bloodless complicity for a more romantic and assertive resistance seems a logical call to action. The first cop to kill is the one between your ears.
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